The Founder Chairman of Navesta Pharmaceuticals defied the naysayers to become the only intravenous drugs maker in Sri Lanka. He is on the verge of opening a second plant and exporting to the European market which will see revenue grow 200%.
What was the boldest thing you have done as a CEO or business leader?
Two bold decisions come to mind. The first would be founding Navesta Pharmaceuticals and pioneering intravenous drug manufacturing in Sri Lanka when everyone in the industry said it would not be feasible or even possible. We are the only company in Sri Lanka manufacturing intravenous (IV) medications.
My father started a pharmaceutical import and distribution business in 1996 called Citihealth Imports mainly supplying from India. When one of the Indian brands we helped popularise in Sri Lanka acquired my father’s business in 2014, I asked myself: why do all the hard work building a well-known brand only to lose it?
So, I immediately set my plans in motion to start my own venture. It was an arduous journey navigating a complex maze of red tape to secure the necessary approvals. Construction of the production facility commenced in 2015. It took a year to complete, but commercialization began two years later because we had to install the machinery and equipment and validate them.
I continued to face discouragement because manufacturing IV medication is extraordinarily complex. Even in India, self-sufficient in pharmaceuticals, few companies get it right.
Unlike oral or external medications, IV drugs are administered directly to the bloodstream, so they need to be safe. Our production facility had to be sterile. Every square foot had to be 100% clean and heating and ventilation controlled at regulated standards. Our air conditioning system has six filters, the last being a 0.3 micron high efficiency particulate air filter. There are billions of dust particles in the air: our facility has zero! Maintaining a highly controlled facility is costlier than the production inputs such as the raw materials, active pharmaceutical ingredients and packing materials.
I continued to face discouragement because manufacturing IV medication is extraordinarily complex. Even in India, self-sufficient in pharmaceuticals, few companies get it right
Despite the overwhelming challenges, I believed in myself and carried out my plans. Today, four years since production started, Navesta supplies 15 types of injectable antibiotics to the entire government and private sector hospital networks in Sri Lanka. Some of our brands even enjoy a natural monopoly.
My second bold move is starting a second production plant despite the pandemic and related economic challenges. We intend to manufacture a certain kind of antibiotic in tablet, capsule and syrup form that requires humidity levels to be maintained at 20% in the facility at all times. This plant will commence operations by September 2021.
What inspired you to take this contrarian view?
Simple. I had a desire to do something bold and unique. I was not interested in joining the bandwagon. There are about 14 pharmaceutical manufacturers in the country, a few of them in operation since the 1950s and 60s. I also saw an opportunity to grow faster by doing something no one else in the market was. And I was right all along!
We compete with imported brands, but our prices are still lower than the government’s price ceiling, and our quality is as good. This is why we are in the process of exporting to the European market. Even when there was a recent shortage for a particular IV medicine in the country, we supplied Sri Lanka’s hospitals without interruption, thus creating a natural monopoly for ourselves.
Apart from the new production plant, what excites you about the future of Navesta Pharmaceuticals?
We are on the verge of acquiring the necessary approvals to export to the European region. The European Medicines Agency -the drugs regulatory authority for that region, has conducted several audits of our production facility, and we hope to commence exports shortly. Initially, we will manufacture IV medications under license for a multinational brand based in Europe and then we will also market Navesta brands. We already opened an office in Europe, but the pandemic has caused some delays.
I designed both manufacturing plants with exports in mind. The first plant operates at 50% capacity but meets the entire demand of the Sri Lankan market. The second plant is designed to supply the whole domestic market at just 30% capacity. The extra capacity at both plants is purely for exports. I expect the second plant together with exports will potentially increase our current annual revenue by about 200%.
The first plant operates at 50% capacity but meets the entire demand of the Sri Lankan market. The second plant is designed to supply the whole domestic market at just 30% capacity. The extra capacity at both plants is purely for exports
In the long term, I hope to explore opportunities to set up similar manufacturing plants in Africa too. I believe Navesta Pharmaceuticals is building the capacity to take Sri Lanka’s pharmaceuticals manufacturing industry global much the same way the apparel industry is today.
Sri Lanka is home to world-class apparel manufacturing firms that are globally competitive. They operate manufacturing plants in several countries and are taking the lead in innovation and design. Sri Lanka has the potential to do this in pharmaceuticals manufacturing too.
However, we do need an environment and policies conducive to growth. India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal are all self-sufficient in pharmaceuticals apart from a few patented ones. In Sri Lanka’s case, we import 85% of our pharmaceuticals requirement. It is not that we do not have the talent, our clinical pharmaceutical scientists and technicians are sought-after, and brain drain is a big problem. However, we need a climate that encourages investments, and regulations have to be strengthened but not stifling.
How unnerving was it to start Navesta when industry pundits said it was not going to work?
Talk about sleepless nights and stressing out! Negotiating bank credit, acquiring approvals, recruiting the right people, and building a high-control manufacturing plant in Horana was no walk in the park. And everyone just kept telling me my plan would not work!
I spent three hours a day, six days of the week just travelling from home to Horana and back! I had to quickly train myself to shut out all the negativity and stay focused. Finding time for my family and well-being was critically important to me. I developed habits that helped me fight the stress, stay driven and focused, and live my passions, like spending time with my seven-year-old daughter.
What is the hardest lesson you had to learn?
I have lived, studied, and worked in the US for several years, and the graduates we employ are some of the most capable and the smartest individuals I have ever come across. Around 55% of my staff are graduates from local universities. The biggest challenge I have is retaining talent. For some reason, our best people aspire to live and work overseas. It saddens me to lose people, even though you could say Navesta is the springboard they use to greener pastures.
Every citizen in this country pays for free education. Unfortunately, a majority of the top graduates produced by our universities want to leave the country! To overcome the challenge of losing talent, my company provides opportunities for staff to complete their training abroad, and we also invest in further education opportunities hoping to retain them. A few opt to leave us yet, sadly.
What doe s your typical workday look like?
I wake up at 5 o’clock every day and check my emails, research the latest global trends in the pharmaceuticals industry, and update myself about the important events of the day both locally and internationally.
At six I hit the gym. Keeping fit and healthy is important to me because it helps me do so much more with my life. Working out is a great stress-buster too!
I leave for work by 8:15 a.m. and reach the office by 9 a.m. I make sure I am back home to have dinner with my daughter at 6:30 p.m.
I then spend time with my family and watch TV. I love doing both! By 9:30 p.m. I hit the sack. No matter what I do or where I am, I have to be in bed by 9:30 p.m. Even when I meet up with friends in the evenings, they know I will leave early to keep my bedtime!
I believe this routine and discipline has given me the strength I need to do the impossible, and it is not hard to do. In my late 20s I was often up late meeting up with friends and partying, and I was 14 kilos heavier than I am today. My parents developed chronic health problems in their early 40s, and I did not want to go down that same road. So, health became, and still is, my number one priority. So, I started working out. It becomes addictive, and the toxins released in the brain can do wonders and gives you that confidence and energy to achieve important personal goals.
I believe Navesta Pharmaceuticals is building the capacity to take Sri Lanka’s pharmaceuticals manufacturing industry global much the same way the apparel industry is today